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BACK TO THE FUTURE

11/20/2004 1:35 PM - Top prospect Kari Lehtonen looks forward to the day when he is playing regularly for the Atlanta Thrashers

Story and photo by Mark Newman

If goaltender Kari Lehtonen is the future of the National Hockey League, he probably has no chance of ever becoming the players’ chief negotiator.

“If I was not getting paid, I would still play hockey, even somewhere at a lower level,” he says. “It’s always so much fun to come to the rink and be with the guys. It doesn’t feel like work at all.”

Lehtonen, the sport’s top-rated prospect two years running according to The Hockey News, would eat pucks for breakfast if he could. His boyish enthusiasm is not surprising, given that he just celebrated his 21st birthday on Nov. 16.

Shy and soft-spoken, the Helsinki, Finland-born Lehtonen is about as unassuming as any star-in-the-making can be. Currently playing for the Chicago Wolves, he is positively ebullient as he describes his NHL debut last March.

“I was so happy; it was like a dream-come-true,” he says. “When the puck dropped and the seconds starting ticking off the scoreboard, I started laughing. I thought, ‘Here I am – maybe I’m not in the right place.’ I couldn’t believe it.”

Lehtonen has been thinking about little else other than hockey ever since he began following his older brother, Kimmo, to his team practices at the tender age of five.

“I went to watch him and I wanted to join in right away,” he says. “I think there were no teams my age, so they let me play, even though they were all a couple of years older.”

When it came to skating, Lehtonen was hardly a puck prodigy. “I think I was pretty bad because I wanted to try something else,” he says, explaining that going into the net was his attempt to salvage his budding passion.

“I don’t really remember, but (playing goal) must have been fun because I stayed there. I know I wanted to be there.”

He remembers the impression of watching the IIHF World Championship gold medal game between Sweden and Finland on the family television set and how that game in Stockholm fortified his aspirations.

Only 12 years old at the time, Lehtonen watched with admiration as his goaltending idol Jarmo Myllys stopped the Swedes, and Ville Peltonen scored three goals as Finland won the gold for the first time.

“It was amazing because we are a small country and the guys did something unbelievable,” he says. “I was at that age when it made a strong impression. It made me want to play hockey even more.”

Imagine the thrill Lehtonen experienced when he found himself in the top league in Finland as a teenager and his boyhood hero was roaming the net on the opposite end of the ice.

“One of my greatest moments was when I played my first game in the Finnish (Elite) League,” Lehtonen says. “I played against (Myllys) and I won. That was pretty amazing.”

For the past couple of years, Lehtonen has been a guest instructor at a summer hockey program run by Myllys, who lives in the small town of Savonlinna, about five hours northeast of Helsinki.

“I used to go to camps when I was small and I remember what a big thing it was for me to see goalies from the Finnish leagues and for them to give advice,” Lehtonen says. “The kids enjoy it so much, so it’s nice to be able to help.”

The camps bring back memories of his own youth, not that long ago, when the sessions represented an opportunity to test his abilities beyond the hours of ball hockey played with his brother.

Lehtonen admits that he has always been singularly focused on hockey. “When I think about it, maybe it’s sad that I didn’t try another sport, but I liked hockey so much right away. It took all my time, so I didn’t have a chance to try anything else.”

His intense approach to the game eventually established him as the top young goaltender in the world.

His dominating performance against a heavily favored Russian team helped Finland win gold at the 2000 IIHF Under-18 World Championship. A year later, he backed up Ari Ahonen in the World Junior Championship and earned a tie in a game versus Canada.

After leading the Finnish squad to the bronze medal at the 2002 World Juniors in Pardubice, Czech Republic, Lehtonen became the highest-drafted European goalie when the Atlanta Thrashers took him with the second overall pick.

Keen hockey observers have been impressed with Lehtonen for a long time. Central Scouting describes him as “a tall goaltender with impressive quickness and excellent reflexes... a good competitor with a winning attitude.”

In fact, it’s his calm and cool demeanor that distinguish his play. Considering his relative youth and inexperience, he shows remarkable maturity in the mental aspects associated with his position.

“The big thing is to get mentally stronger,” he says. “When it comes to important games, I want to play well.”

Not overly superstitious, Lehtonen tries to follow certain routines to prepare himself for big games, but his methods are notable mainly for their lack of madness. If anything, he says, he just wants to be left alone.

“I like to be by myself a lot, just relaxing,” he says, noting that it’s the quiet time more than music or reading that occupies his mind. “I’m not really thinking. Maybe I’m kind of weird, but I found that’s what works for me.”

If he doesn’t like talking much on game days, it’s so he can gain the laser-pointer focus of a player who is determined to perform to the best of his abilities. If there is pressure, it is mostly self-inflicted.

High expectations come with striving to become an NHL-caliber netminder, not being a high draft pick. “I’m not thinking about what everybody else is saying,” he says. “I’m just trying to play as well as I can.”

Lehtonen suggests that he might be his own toughest critic. “I get so mad at myself (because) I always want to improve,” he says. “I have my own expectations about how I should play.”

Consistency is what he is working on most, doing the little things that will help him deliver solid performances night after night, not just in important games. “If I play well, I don’t want to get too happy. That’s not going to help in the next game. I want to play at the same level every game.”

He shows every sign of accomplishing his goals. He certainly was impressive during his NHL audition last season, allowing only five goals in four starts for the Thrashers.

At this point, the numbers on his NHL resume are downright scary: a perfect 4-0 record, a 1.25 goals-against average and a .953 save percentage. Even so, Lehtonen isn’t letting anything go to his head, not even the 30-save shutout he recorded against the Florida Panthers on March 27.

“I don’t think about those things that much,” he says. “When I’m old, it will be nice to remember what I did. It’s fun to see I can play at that level. After four games, I want to play even more.”

And so Lehtonen is biding his time during the NHL labor impasse, working on his stickhandling, doing whatever he can to learn how to use his size (6-foot-3, 190-lbs.) and quickness to his advantage.

When the call finally comes, he wants to be ready.

“It’s sad there is no NHL now, but maybe that’s a good thing for me,” he says. “I’m setting my own goals now.”

In the meantime, he is enjoying his stay in Chicago, although he wasn’t too sure about the Windy City at first. “It’s a fun city, but it felt way too big at first,” he says. “The one thing I still don’t like is the traffic.”

He admits that adjusting to North American hockey might have been easier than becoming accustomed to living in a different country.

“The first couple of months were tough, especially with my language skills,” Lehtonen says. “I didn’t want to speak that much because I was scared that I’d make mistakes.”

Before coming to the states, he was able to work on his English with help from Jamie Ram, the ex-New York Rangers goalie, who joined his Jokerit-Helsinki team in Finland a couple of years back.

Watching television shows like “The Simpsons” and “American Idol” here has helped, too.

Still, Lehtonen was glad to return this past summer to Finland, where he lives with his father Martti, mother Marja, sister Kirsi and brother Kimmo. His father owns a tire dealership and his mother is a nurse.

“It was nice to go back home after the long season,” he says. “It was the first time I was away from home for so long.”

If nothing else, playing in the AHL last season helped him appreciate the
importance of family and friends.

“I had been planning to go somewhere in Europe, but I realized home was the place where I want to spend my time when I can,” he says. “I couldn’t even see all my friends; the summer went so fast.”

Waiting for the opportunity to play again in the NHL may try the patience of some players, but Lehtonen isn’t likely to be among them. As long as he’s playing hockey somewhere, he will be happy. Time flies, after all.


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